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COLOMBIA: Women Lead Opposition to Gold Mine

Helda Martínez

IBAGUÉ, Colombia, Aug 3 2009 (IPS) - Women in the small Andean town of Cajamarca and the nearby city of Ibagué, in the central-west Colombian province of Tolima, are leading the struggle against a major gold mining venture that threatens to alter their way of life.

Journalist Herrán and graduate student Ávila argue their opposition to the mine. Credit: Helda Martínez/IPS

Journalist Herrán and graduate student Ávila argue their opposition to the mine. Credit: Helda Martínez/IPS

Despite differences in social and economic conditions, one thing that unites women from these two Tolima communities – separated by only a few kilometres on the Pan-American Highway but otherwise worlds apart – is their wariness over a mining project that promises prosperity for a few while posing a threat to the natural environment and rural livelihoods.

It all began in 2006, when the South Africa-based mining giant AngloGold Ashanti (AGA) – which had prospecting permits from the Ministry of Mines to explore 27 areas in the province, including 15 in the municipality – discovered gold in a field near Cajamarca.

The quiet life of Cajamarca, a farming town of 25,000 people who mostly live off agriculture and cattle raising activities, was disrupted as soon as exploration began in a mine called La Colosa, less than six km from the town’s limits.

Following the initial euphoria spurred by the mirage of possibilities conjured by newfound gold, excitement among the locals died down as they realised the consequences that mining would have on their soil and their water resources, prompting them to begin organising in opposition to an activity that also threatened to have a negative social impact.

The gold deposit found by the mining company is located in a forest reserve created by a 1959 law. The area also holds significant water resources that are critical for the protected forestland, the region’s ecosystems and agricultural production.

According to critics, the intensive, open-pit mining activities that would be required to extract the gold would take a heavy toll on water resources and severely affect crops. Furthermore, the use of cyanide and other chemicals in the leaching process necessary to separate the gold metal from the rest of the minerals would pollute the groundwater.

Thirty-five kilometres from Cajamarca, in the provincial capital of Ibagué – a cultural centre of over half a million people, with nine universities – women students are playing a leading role in the mobilisation against the mining project.

According to Ministry of Education figures, women outnumber men by two percentage points in the universities of the Tolima capital, whose economy is based on agriculture-related commerce and activities and tourism.

Cajamarca has no centres of higher education, but there are still more women than men from that small town pursuing university studies. Of the 463 residents who in 2005 were enrolled in universities, more than 58 percent were women, according to that year’s national census.

But discrimination in the region has no consideration for education, and when it comes to the labour market, it is the women of Ibagué and, especially, those of Cajamarca who have a harder time finding employment. Poverty also hits these women the hardest, says Diana Ávila, an economics student at the University of Tolima who is writing her thesis on these issues.

“Many women can only find work as domestics, and the conditions they are employed under are usually unfavourable,” Ávila told IPS. Journalist María Alexandra Herrán added that the social and economic conditions in Cajamarca are also forcing “girls and young women into prostitution, in some cases even pushed by members of their own family.”

“Cajamarca is a place where outsiders are permanently passing through – operating as a truck stop, for example – and this makes it vulnerable to prostitution, resulting in a high incidence of sexually transmitted diseases,” she told IPS.

United against La Colosa

Opposition against La Colosa gathered strength in December 2007 when AGA announced that its prospecting operations had confirmed that the site held one of the world’s ten largest gold deposits.

Anti-mining activism spurred a social mobilisation that currently involves 28 non-governmental organisations, most of them formed over the past year. What all of these groups have in common is prominent participation by women.

“We have an even number of men and women, but the women have a more active participation,” said Ávila, an activist with Conciencia Ambiental (Environmental Awareness), one of the NGOs mobilising against the mining project.

Cristian Frasser, another economics undergraduate who studies with Ávila, told IPS that women, both university students and peasants, “are contributing enormously to resistance efforts.”

He also described the actions taken by Carmen Sofía Bonilla, director of the province’s top environmental authority, Corporación Autónoma Regional de Tolima (CORTOLIMA), as “brave.”

Bonilla’s refusal to give in to pressures has made her a hero to La Colosa opponents. She applied environmental protection regulations to the letter and put forward technical arguments to first reduce the area that AGA could explore and then push for a freeze on such activities.

Another Tolima woman, Liberal Party legislator Rossmery Martínez, called for a debate in the national House of Representatives, questioning the legality of gold prospecting in a protected forest area, and won leftist Senator Gloria Inés Ramírez over to the cause.

Bonilla’s actions, the legislative debate, and subsequent public hearings in Ibagué and Bogotá convinced the Ministry of the Environment to suspend activities in La Colosa in February 2008, pending the outcome of an environmental feasibility study that will determine if the mining project is authorised under the current legislation that protects and limits the use of the area’s forestlands and water resources.

Since then, more and more women university students, in particular those in forestry engineering and economics programmes, have become involved in the campaign against the gold mine, as they are aware that the freeze on activities is only temporary.

Activists are drawing inspiration from Ataco, another town in Tolima province, where 27 years ago a grassroots mobilisation headed by local women succeeded in blocking another gold mine project. That action was directed against a Colombian company.

La Colosa opponents are also organising discussion meetings, or workshops, to encourage women – in particular peasant farmers – who will be directly affected by the mine to join the cause.

“We support awareness-raising and communication efforts with actions aimed at informing on the impacts that mining will have, like water shortages and widespread pollution, which will particularly affect the health of children, seniors and pregnant women,” Herrán told IPS at one of these meetings.

“As women, our messages reach out to other women,” she added, explaining that the workshops are held in Ibagué, Cajamarca and municipalities in the Tolima lowlands, where there are extensive rice, cotton and sorghum crops.

In addition to the workshops, activists launched an online campaign that has received numerous supporters. “I’m with you because my son drinks water, not gold” – that, said Ávila, is just one of the messages left by these supporters. “This message hit me because it clearly summarises what would happen if the mining project is allowed to continue,” Ávila said.

The messages of support also stimulate the women of Cajamarca to continue mobilising.

One of these women, Aura María Díaz, told IPS that most women in the region have few job opportunities, other than working in the fields.

“I had my doubts about the benefits the mine would bring, but now I’m starting to believe that it would not only mean the end of agriculture, but would also disrupt the peace. Already it’s brought thieves and muggers into town, and now we’re afraid to go out at night,” she said.

She also added that when the mining company began the now-suspended works, the number of prostitutes went up considerably.

Four hundred workers had initially been hired, and that brought in a lot of outsiders and created a false sense of bonanza that tripled the cost of property rentals and sales.

Some women were hired to work at the mine, but not many, according to Ávila, “because mining is hard work and, other than cooking, there are few tasks for women.”

“The drills used are heavy equipment, and you have to climb up a mountain with slopes of up to 45 degrees. There could be some women in administrative posts, but we don’t know that for sure,” Frasser added.

It was also reported that working conditions for women “were not the best, though it’s not possible to get accurate data because AGA won’t reveal that information,” Evelio Campos, a native of Cajamarca who heads the NGO Ecotierra, told IPS.

“We’re in the process of gathering information and we know that several women were given the opportunity of working in the mine, some even as drilling supervisors, but were fired when they got pregnant,” he added.

“The history of the mining industry confirms that prostitution, drugs and alcohol spread wherever this activity develops,” Frasser noted.

Olivia Gil, also a native of Cajamarca and actively opposed to the mine, is convinced that if La Colosa opened that’s what would happen there. “I’ve always heard that even if a mining project brings an initial bonanza, when it ends, it leaves the town in ruins,” she told IPS.

“There’s no wealth here now, but we live peacefully, which is what I want for my granddaughters,” she said.

She’s still hopeful that when her granddaughters – who are now little girls – grow up they’ll have more options than are now available in Cajamarca.

“I want something different than the absurd fantasies some people dream of today. I want them to get something more out of life than having a little fun dancing and drinking, to later end up pregnant. I don’t want that for my granddaughters,” she added.

That is why her daughter lives in Ibagué, where there are more opportunities for women, and where “my granddaughters have a chance for a better future than her mother and I had,” she concluded.

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